Nancy Gruskin, Pedestrian and Cycling Safety Advocate

By Krista Ciminera in News on Feb 17, 2011 9:10 AM

Source: Gothamist

© Krista Ciminera/Gothamist

© Krista Ciminera/Gothamist

The City Council unanimously voted to passa package of traffic bills yesterday that finally requires the city to collect data on cyclist and pedestrian accidents. Previously, the city had no method for collecting these stats. One bill in particular, TrafficStat, was born out of a tragic event that happened two years ago when Nancy Gruskin’s husband, Stuart, died after colliding with a cyclist that was riding the wrong way in midtown. His death prompted Nancy to create the Stuart C. Gruskin Foundation, which has been advocating for pedestrian awareness in cities across the country, and pushed to get this bill passed. We spoke with Nancy yesterday about the safety hazards that happen when a city gets too big for its cycling-infrastructure britches, and better ways to end what she calls the “civil war between cyclists and pedestrians and motorists.”

There are three bills up today, but the one that’s most important to you is the one about the collection of cyclist and pedestrian collisions. I was wondering what you hoped to see the statistics change about the way the streets are run right now? The main problem is that there aren’t accurate statistics now, so we don’t know. You can’t find them if you call the DOT, the number that they give you is not accurate so the fact that now we’re voting on a law to be passed for agencies to collect this data and then report it is a huge step forward for bicycle and pedestrian safety. Those numbers provide the foundation of future policies.

There’s such a boom in cycling and a reworking of the streets to make it more pedestrian and cycling friendly, yet there hasn’t been any awareness raising or safety. How do you feel about that? In the beginning, the city decided that they were going to change the cityscape with bike lanes and everything that’s happened, which is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be a comprehensive approach. If you want to do that, you might want to step up enforcement. If we’re putting more cyclists on the road then we need to make sure they’re safe and we need to have the mechanism in place to track that. The problem is that’s not what happened, we’re kind of playing catch up here. And that’s truly what the problem is. So rather than taking something and building a whole program and thinking about all of the different strategies, it’s kind of like everything just happened and they city is reacting.

It does seem like a game of catch-up. Do you have any thoughts in particular where you see the statistics being used? Well, for example, if we start collecting these statistics, and I’m just making this up, and all of a sudden you start seeing an inordinate amount of bicycle and pedestrian incidents at 42nd street, and it seems out of line, you can take that information and say, “We should really do something there.” This is what these numbers do, they help govern your policy. It’s a window to where there are problems. If you start to see that if you put so many more cyclists on the roads every year, that now you’re starting to see more pedestrian incidents, more cyclist collisions between each other, you might say, “Wait a minute, we need something more here.” It can help many things.

Aside from the bills, can you think of anything else that would help improve the safety or awareness of the way that the roads are changing for cyclists and pedestrians? I’m not a traffic engineer, so I don’t know for sure. But sometimes I think maybe there should be “bike only” avenues, or more bike lanes that have both directions. I could never sit here and talk about what would be more safe in terms of the actual engineering of the lane, but those are some ideas.

How do you feel about the Bloomberg administration’s initiative for more bike lanes and advocacy? Thank you for asking me that because the Gruskin Foundation’s message is, “Cycling is good, cycling is great, however—it’s safe cycling.” There needs to be better enforcement of laws. I would argue that, you put in a bike lane and it brings 200 more people to the lane and 180 of them aren’t following the laws, does it make anything safer? Going with that philosophy, a bike lane in general certainly protects everybody—the cyclists, motorists, pedestrians—but following the laws is really key, and key to sustaining the city. You need to have a cycling infrastructure but it needs to be well thought out and planned and that’s really the message of the Foundation.

Once the bills get passed, do you hope to see some positive change?What’s very hard is that, and I am literally caught right in the wind with it, it feels like a civil war between cyclists and pedestrians and motorists and everybody screaming at each other. Personally it makes me feel really bad because my family suffered the ultimate tragedy and I’m not saying to get all the bikes off the road, I’m just saying to follow the laws. In terms of the bigger infrastructure, just understand what you’re doing. If you’re going to put a lane here, you’re going to have an equal and opposite reaction. So we need to have numbers and that’s why this is so important. You think it would have been there when we started but it wasn’t.

Is there anything else the Foundation is pushing for that isn’t being addressed today? One of the main issues of the Foundation is to create awareness of safety issues for cyclists and pedestrian in urban areas, and we’re certainly doing that now. Some of the other things that we feel strongly about are safety and head trauma. We hope to partner with Weill Cornell Hospital, the hospital that operated on Stuart, to provide a wonderful program for kids: bike safety as it relates to head trauma. It’s fascinating; if you fall one way you’re okay, but if you fall another way, you’re not. It’s really so very dangerous when the cyclists ride without helmets. It’s so dangerous for themselves.

They passed a law a few years ago to require restaurants to provide their delivery people with helmets, but it’s not enforced very much at all. Not at all. You can have a million laws on the books but they need to be enforced. It’s like that old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” It’s like, “If you have a law and it’s not enforced, is it a law? What does it really do?”